The Power of the Minority: Can the Supercommittee Sell A Deal to Pelosi and McConnell?

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Philip Scott Andrews / The New York Times / Redux

Sen. Max Baucus of Montana makes his way to a meeting with other Democratic members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction in Washington, Nov. 9, 2011.

As Capitol Hill enters a critical 48-hour stretch, the sense on the Hill is that momentum is gaining, however incrementally, for a supercommittee deal on deficit reduction. Negotiations kicked up a level as House Speaker John Boehner met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Tuesday morning. But whatever deal Reid and Boehner may strike, it will almost certainly need bipartisan support in both chambers. Enter the minority.

Thus far House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have stayed away from the talks. Yes, they’ve been kept abreast of the supercommittee’s progress from their representatives on the panel. But neither leader has actively negotiated. That will have to change, and quickly, if a deal is to be reached.

In terms of pure politics, neither leader has a real incentive to help out. Failure to reach a deal would be yet another blow to congressional incumbents. Already Congress’s approval ratings are at record lows – 9% in some polls. The greater the dissatisfaction with status quo, the greater the chance voters will want to throw them out and usher in majorities for Pelosi and McConnell.

A compromise could also undermine both leaders’ ballot messages. Pelosi has hammered Boehner and House Republicans for failing to protect entitlements, particularly Medicare. Any potential deal is sure to include cuts to the program, all but taking away Pelosi’s most potent line of attack. McConnell, on the other hand, has been adamant that Republicans won’t raise taxes, and any compromise is sure to include hundreds of billions of dollars worth of increased revenues.

That said, there is the greater good to consider. If a deal isn’t reached, there’s a good chance that America will lose its AAA bond rating. The stock market, already skittish over Europe’s widening debt crisis, would almost certainly take a hit. Overtly walking away from a deal could be seen as politically craven. That said, finding an excuse to shoot down what will surely be an unpalatable compromise for the extremes of both bases won’t be hard.

Pelosi’s office said she spoke Tuesday with Reid and that her only criteria is that the result is “a big bold balanced plan that has jobs as centerpiece.” And McConnell told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon that “failure is not an option.”

“My position is we need to get a result here. We’ve got just a little bit of time left. Frequently in the legislative process deals come together near the end,” McConnell said. But time is running out. The Congressional Budget Office needs to see some sort of deal in the next 48 hours or there won’t be time to score it before the Monday deadline. Which leaves a lot of road to travel in not a lot of time.